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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  November 7, 2014 12:00am-12:31am PST

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good evening from los angeles. i'm tavis smiley. first a conversation with author and the atlantic correspondent eric liu about his bottle, "a chinaman's chance: one family's journey and american dream." a tone with exploration of identity particular low for first-generation americans. and then a conversation with actress felicity jones, receiving outstanding reviews in her movie "the chronicle of everything," a love story between jane and steven hawk, a brilliant astrophysicist whose diagnosis of als nearly derailed his life. we're glad you joined us. those conversations coming up right now. ♪
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♪ and by characteristics to your pbs -- contributions to your pbs station by viewers like you. thank you. ♪ the immigrant experience continues to define this nation, prompting us you to examine again and again what it means to be an american. eric liu, author of several texts on the asian american experience has written a tone, "a chinaman's chance: one
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family's journey into the american dream," talking about the conflicts inneernt a you -- inherent in a you do youal cultural upbringing. i want to read a passage that i think is poignant and at the epicenter of our conversation tonight about what this text is about, what so many of us struggle with when it comes to this notion of identity in america. certainly in a multicultural, multiethnic america. i wonder if you might read the passage starting on page 71. >> sure. "as americans, we have our own set of identity needs. our own smaller hierarchies of how we are seen. here's mine -- i need to be seen not as an enemy. i need to be seen not as an alien other. i need to be seen not as white. i need to be seen not as without identity or color. i need to be seen as chinese. i need to be seen as american. i need to be seen as chinese
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american. i need to be seen as myself." >> can you be seen -- do you feel like you're being seen as all those things in the latter part of what you said? >> i think all those things are happening all the time in america. what is so exciting and dangerous, i suppose, about the time we're in, tavis, is this is an age of just unprecedented demographic flux in america. you know, people have been throwing around the date 2040 for many years now. that's the year when this is a majority people of color country. in our public schools, that day has arrived. we're already a majority/minority -- majority people of color nation, and yet our language for talking about who is us lags behind by at least a generation. and so all of these things are happening. there are times when people see me complete leah american, right. and they are watching this conversation, thinking, this is a great american conversation. they're not thinking african-american, asian american, you know, but there are other people looking at that show thinking, what's going on here, right?
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what do these guys have to say about america. it's not my america, right? so simultaneously kind of recognizing that we are both progressing and still being held back by old ways of defining america. >> let me jump ahead, and i'll come back. since we're in election season right now, when you hear the term these days you work for bill clinton, as we know, one of his great speechwriters. when you hear the term "identity politics," what do you hear when you hear that phrase these days? >> yeah, it's funny, these days is a key. 20 years ago when you and i first started having these conversations, that was all about white america reckoning with the fact that nonwhite america in the form of multi culturalism and diversity was founding its voice. frankly, today when i hear the phrase "identity politics," i think about the politics of white, particularly white, working class anxiety and fear and how that defines so much of our politics. the anxiety of falling behind as
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a country. the anxiety of falling behind relative to other groups, economically and racially. and just the sense of people who used to think they were by default king of the hill, realizing that's not so anymore. and that reverberates throughout all of our politics. not just -- across the political spectrum. i think that is probably for the rest of our lives going to be something that americans as citizens -- i'm not just talking about elected leaders, that we have to learn how to see each other and talk to each other in a way that gets us past the conflation of american with white, with american not as whiteness. being american is something bigger and beyond that. that's going to be hard for some to accept. that's going to be hard for some people also to claim. and we all have to work on that together. >> so how much of this then, never mind the success that you have and the success that i have been blessed to have, and for that matter, those who might not have been as blessed to do some of the things that we have been fortunate to do.
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and yet still have to deal with the pushback where their identity is concerned -- how much of this has to do, even at our level, whatever that means, with fear? >> yeah. fear an anxiety, at the heart of all of this. one reality i said earlier is we're living through profound demographic flux. the other is we're living through the period of the greatest income inequality and wealth concentration this country has seen since before the great depression, right? so questions of opportunity and the absence, the evaporation of social mobility, that fear and anxiety that comes with not only am i not able to keep up with how i thought i was doing, i'm not feeling like i can pass on my kids more opportunity, that becomes defining in a way that when you intersthaekt with race and the -- intersect that with race and the new face, new voice of america, absent enlightened empathetic leadership, that is a very combustible mix, right? >> when you are an fob, a friend of bill, and you work with him in the white house and you've
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written bestselling text and all the things you have been fortunate to do in your life, how is that one of your level of achievement could even have these identity anxieties? shouldn't you be past that now? aren't you -- aren't you already asimulated into whatever it means to be american? why are you still wrestling with these issues? >> first of all, i never use the word assimilated. assimilate sudden a word from 100 years ago when immigrants and the descendants of slaves were told you want to be american, start acting more like these wasps here. right? shed your old way of being. shed your style of talking. shed your church habits, your food habits, whatever, right? that's assimilation. that's early 20th century, late 19th century, we're in the realm of a culture-ation where by entering the culture, we change the culture. by finding our voice, we change the voice of america. so that's number one. your deep question about class and opportunity, look, i feel
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like as the son of immigrants two things. one, every child of immigrants in this country on a certain level, whether they are rich or poor, i'm not talking materially, they have won the lottery to have been born in the united states at this time in history. my job is to make sure we have bigger conversations about what allows us to face the fact that people are falling behind and that often as americans we use a facilitied language of race to cover for the fact that we don't know hoult talk abo-- how to ta class. >> i'm glad you called it "a chinaman's chance." i know the story because i've gone through the book obviously. for those cure youious, why call it "a chinaman's chance"? >> some know that has origins as a slur. years ago when chinese immigrants first started coming here and were working on the railroads, given thankless tasks, the figure of speech arose like, somebody who had no
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or slim chance of making it, they had a chesapeake binaman's. when my dad came to the states in the 1950s, he was a sponge for idiom and slang. somewhere along the way he heard the phrase. he realized, wait a minute, that phrase is being used against people like me. my dad had this playful, ironic send of humor. he thought, i'm going to grab that dart and redirect it. he started using the phrase himself and started using it when i was a kid, applying it to everyday, prosaic situations to detoxify it. we group in new york. if the yankees were down by five in the bottom of the ninth, he would say, "eric, they've got a chinaplan's chan -- chinaman's of winning." to get a rise out of me. that's not okay. he would say, "that is okay." an american act of reclaiming, reappropriating the boxes people
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want to put you in and saying, i'm going to redesign this and bust out by redesigning it. it's partly an homage to him that i named the book that. it's partly back to our earlier conversation that we live in a time where because china is rising and america's more doubtful of itself, right, and its place in the world, we have questions about is the american dream still alive, is there still opportunity, what chance do people have whether they're chinese or other ethnicities, chance to make it, right. i think that our job, whether you are chinese american or not is to -- to have that conversation about opportunity and to make sure that it's not just dumb, blind chance and luck that allows some people to have a fair shot. >> there's a wonderful story you tell about your mother's -- i don't want to call it dumb luck, nothing dumb about it. but just a great story of her connection to a great american named jackie roosevelt robinson. >> yeah. you know, my mom, when she came to the united states, one of the first jobs she got of as a file clerk. she knew a little english.
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she got a job at a coffee company in new york called chocolate full chock full of nuts. i think it still exists. lonely, shy, scared immigrant woman doing her tasks. over time, she bumped into an executive there in the elevator, in the hallways, this kindly older african-american gentleman who was just like, you know, always had a kind word for her. told his stokt look out for my mom -- secretary to look out for my mom. he knew she was new and making her way in the company and the country. his name of robinson. she always had a soft shot for mr. robinson who smoothed the way for her. it wasn't until years later -- years later when i became a baseball fanatic and she read about this guy and realized, oh, this is the guy i used to work for. i look ted pape-- look ted pape mr. robinson is jackie robinson. i tell that partly because it's a random great story. but it's also this myth that we have in america that people are self-made is just that.
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it's a myth, right? my mom health care reform she worked at a different place with not only a boss who didn't care but you maybe a boss who was hostile, in an environment that was unwelcoming, her life and path would have taken a different term. someone named mr. robinson decided even though you don't look anything like me, even though our family stories are nothing alike, even though we hardly know each other, i'm going to look out for you. i'm going to help pave the way for you here. and that's how my mom mom of able to enter more fully into american life. i think in this age now where people are worrying about is china going to be number one is, america's day done, i think about stories like that. and i realize the united states retains this deep, enduring, competitive advantage, right, which is this -- we make in america -- america makes chinese americans. china does not make american chinese. china does not want to take people of different backgrounds, your ancestors, my ancestors, the people around the world, and fuse and integrate them and welcome them in a society and
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allow them to redefine the base idea of chineseness, right? that's not what they're wired for. that's not what they do there. that is what we do here. it's what we are wired for, as long as we don't blow it. and i think that's the key right now in this age of fear and anxiety, making sure we don't succumb to this desire to shut down our border, close our hearts, close our minds, and make it so that the future mr. robinsons when they see the future, you know, versions of my mom don't think, well, that's somebody who's going to be competing with me or that's somebody i have nothing in common with so i'm going to cut them off. >> let me ask you a quick exit question because i could discuss this for hours. i love what you've done here. i'm a boxing fan. i trained, my workout is boxing most days. and i love the sport. and i'm always fascinated to watch or to attend, you know, an evening of boxing. when you see mexicans or colombians or puerto ricans or
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trinidadians on the bill, everybody pull out their flag. we all live here, but they pull out that flag of that country of origin when they want to root for their particular fighter which makes me ask, given your story now, whether or not you are okay with person of your parents or grandparents' generations who are actually rooting for china and waving that chinese flag, given how they've come up all these years later in the world. >> well, sure. i mean, unyou know, in a sports context, you bet. i grew up watching the little league world series. when taiwan of in, there i'd be root figurer taiwan and get -- taiwan was in there, i'd be rooting for taiwan and getting in it. what i root for is two things. i root for a future in which china and the united states are not in conflict because i think there's a lot of one plus one equals three opportunity here between china and the united states. but the second thing i say, i root for america to deliver on its actual promise. i root for america to actually
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live up to its creed that people like you, people like me, our ancestors and descendants can make something greater here than the sum of its parts so that at a boxing match or in the political arena, people can bring their identities, their heritages here. but when they bring their heritage, they realize that what we're doing together is we are fashioning a new american identity that we share in common with the shared civic creed, a shared cultural background, a shared way of seeing and sharing responsibilities. i'm rooting for us to remember that. if we do that, then what goes on in geopolitics or sports will take care of itself. >> now you see where y bill clinton had him in his inner circle. he's awfully good. everything he says is so poetic and fluid. his name is eric liu. his text is "a chinaman's chance: one family's journey and the chinese american dream." congratulations on the text. good to have you on this program. >> thank you. >> good to see you. coming up, british actress
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felicity joan about "the theory of everything." stay with us. ♪ it's a pretty commonplace plot twist to have a romance challenged by illness. in "the theory of everything," the film tells the real-life love story of jane and steven hawking, one of the world's most brilliant geofizzists who was diagnosed with als at an early age. this shows how real love can be. felicity jones and her co-star are already getting major oscar but for their outstanding performances. we'll start our conversation with a look at "the theory of everything" which opens, in fact, tomorrow. >> leave me now. >> are you going to talk -- >> just go. >> is that what you want? >> yes, please. if you care about me at all,
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please just go. >> i can't. >> i have two years to live. i need to work. >> i love you. >> you -- you've led a forced conclusion. >> i want us to be together for as long we've got. it f that's not very long, then that's just how it is. it will have to do. >> you don't know what's coming. it will affect everything. >> nice kiss. >> well, you know, he's a lovely chap to be kissing. a wonderful eddie redmayne. >> the buzz as i said a moment ago is already out. as much as i've read about hawking over the years, about his work, i didn't know anything about this love story. and so i'm glad the movie has been made.
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i can only imagine how attracted to it you must have when you saw you the screenplay. >> absolutely. at first, you know, i spoke to my agent who was sending the script through. and i thought it was just going to be a straightforward biopic about steepen haphen hawking. then i got the script -- i am old school, hate reading an e-mail or on the computer. i sat down and -- having time to focus. then as i was reading it, it was more and more interesting because of what you say. it was about this -- stephen hawking's phenomenal private life. it was funny, which i loved. you know, which was unexpected. and also there was this female character, jane hawking, who has this phenomenal strength, this inner strength and determination, you know, he's fierce. but it was also about her dealing with all these roles.
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i found it contemporary. this woman trying to be a mother, a caretaker, and having her love and career at the same time. i thought you, this is a dream. this is great. >> the challenge for you, the difficulty for you in playing someone who is still very much alive? >> i mean, absolutely petrifying. it was so nerve-racking because you have this -- in the back of your head the whole time, from starting preparation and then making the film, you just know. i'm like, this woman is going to see this film at some point. and so at this point you do feel this enormous pressure. >> you met her, though. what was that like? >> i met her. again, so nervous before i went to meet her because i read her book, which the film is based on. you know, i felt like i had encyclopedic knowledge of this woman. so when i met her, you know, i thought she was -- she's formidable the way -- what she
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coped with in her life. i met her, she was really welcoming. she was very warm and actually showed me pictures of her and stephen hawking when they first met. there were images of them cool in the '60s. they were sort of sitting on this boat and looking very -- just like normal young people falling in love. i felt like she gave me insight into their lives. >> what did you take away from this project about the power of love? >> the power of love? that's what got them through it. that was the whole thing. and that's what i kept finding is this couple, they just adapted constantly. and the story in many ways is about how love survives. and that i just -- i mean, that's what i kept seeing. both eddie and i would meet people who have als, and you can see this -- it sounds cheesy
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sometimes, but you saw the menaminal love between these people -- phenomenal love between these people. >> was there a particular part of this project that you found emotionally tough? emotionally draining? i can only imagine because when, you know, when he is diagnosed with als, i mean, any sort of disease or illness like that puts a strain on a marriage. i watch my mother become the caretaker for my grandmother. we called her big mama. my mother took care of big mama. and my mother loved her mother, my grandmother, so much. but i saw the strain, physical, emotional, psychologically, spiritually that took on her to be a caretaker for her mother. absolutely. >> i wouldn't wish that on anybody. there had to be a scene that was tough for you emotionally to play. >> it's funny you say that. my grandmother has dementia, alzheimer's. my mother is going through -- with her brothers -- is going through a sorry simil-- a very
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similar situation. when you see that up close, you realize it's hard for everyone involved. the people -- just different problems that both are feeling. with your situation, you have to find the humor in the situation, you know. you see people going -- even in the bleakest moments, there's -- trying to find the light not in it. and that's what we found with stephen -- with stephen and jane. you know, they're both witty, and they -- and they made each other laugh even in phenomenal moments when stephen loses his ability to speak. he has a tracheotomy. i read in jane's book, they'd be communicating though he can't -- be sort of reading his everything. he's wanting and desiring through reading his ooimeyes. and they're still trying to communicate even in difficult circumstances. >> yeah.
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but it takes a toll, though, for those who read the book and other story. in the end, it does take a toll. >> it does, absolutely. and i found that meeting career and patients you can feel the weight on people. and they're trying, they're making an effort. they're trying to keep the dignity of the person. like stephen and jane, jane would be dressing stephen every day and thing like it. and notice in all the photograph of him, his tie would be perfectly straight, and his jacket would look -- and that love, to have that commitment to someone, and i knew that jane would always be there making straight, paying that kind of attention to someone. does -- it does, you need energy and commitment to do that. >> what pressure is your agent under now to bring you scripts this good for the next few months and years? >> this good? maybe with a bit more comedy in
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the mix. it would be lovely to have a few week of shooting where you're not crying every day. >> i assume your next project, i'm hoping, isn't as emotionally draining as this was. >> i'm working with jay who made "the impossible" with naomi watts, who i'm a huge fan of. he's a phenomenal director. it's a very emotional story called "a monster called." i'm lucky, i'm working with a great director. >> that helps. >> yeah, it does help. when you're ultimately at their vision, you have to trust them. >> it's a lovely dress you have on. >> thank you very much. >> these shoes -- kick that shoe you out there. i want to show -- that is hike a see-through netting. >> a mesh -- >> mesh, yeah. >> a mesh net shoe. >> that's a hot shoe. >> which you can get near you. if anyone's watching, that's
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where you get -- >> we saw movie tickets and shoes, only on pbs. it's an honor to meet you. >> and you. >> if this movie does what i think it's going to do and the reception you get, you may be back in that chair sometime, say, february, march. >> i'll be wearing these shoes then -- >> no, you won't. >> just for you. >> you will have 50 designers fighting to dress you. >> they'll be red velvet. >> whatever you have on or barefoot, you come see us again. >> lovely. that would be lovely. really nice to meet you. >> that's our show for tonight. thanks for watching. and as always, keep the faith. ♪ for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at hi, join me next time for a conversation with the great musician and composer herby hancock about possibilities. that's next time. see you then. ♪
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and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you.
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narrator: today, americans are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on wearable devices and smartphone apps to track their fitness and health. smarr: this amazing explosion of wireless health devices is giving us the kind of feedback we've never had until now. narrator: this isn't just the latest health fad. from the number of steps walked to the genes in our bodies, we can now generate our own health data. but who has access to this information, and can regulation keep up with innovation? coming up, how new technologies are helping drive a digital health revolution to hack, track, and quantify our lives. [ heart beating ]


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